Courage: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on December 22, 2019, the fourth Sunday of Advent, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25.

I have discovered in recent months that one of the great privileges of a life in ordained ministry is the invitation to be present with people in those deep, delicate moments when life’s urgent mysteries present themselves:

In the act of placing our Lord’s body, hidden in bread, into an outstretched hand;

In the silence between a question asked and an answer given during a vulnerable conversation;

In the prayers offered beside hospital beds or when gathered around tables for meetings and meals;

In the tears and the jokes, the handshakes and the hugs.

There is, for me, no greater joy than to see the infinite iterations of love that flow in and through this parish—in and through each of us who gather here. 

And throughout this Advent, as I reflect on the many ways that love shows up here at Trinity, the word that keeps coming up in my mind is courage.  

Now, courage is perhaps not a word that we might typically associate with the quiet, expectant season of Advent, but courage is something that I see demonstrated in the lives of every person seated here today. As we learn one another’s stories and better understand each others lives, we often find out how much courage is contained in the people around us, in ways we couldn’t have begun to imagine beforehand. 

Courage is something of a misunderstood word. We tend to equate it with showy displays of bravery or strength, as if it is a quality reserved for the fearless and the bold. But the ancient root of the word courage, “cor” simply means “heart”—and so to be courageous is to be full of heart; to let whatever resides in our heart to overflow into our lives and into the world around us. 

And that is what you and I do in our lives as disciples of Jesus—we seek the heart of Christ and cultivate our own hearts to mirror his. We engage in a thousand small, daily acts of courage—of heart-centered action. Most of these acts the world will never notice, but they are, in fact, the very things upon which the flourishing of the world depends. The quiet gestures of attentiveness that sustain our common life.

So if you do not tend to think of yourself as courageous, I have news for you: you are. By getting up each morning and doing the thing that you must do—to offer the care that you must offer, to send up the prayer that you must send, to grieve what you must grieve—you are full of heart. You are full of courage. And, as our texts this morning reveal, God is with you in all of it. 

God with us. Emmanuel. This is the name we hear in Isaiah and in Matthew; and it is not just a name, it is a promise.

It is, in fact, the definitive promise of the entire Biblical narrative: that God is with God’s people, through everything. Through creation, through estrangement, through exile and restoration, through waiting, through weeping, through victory and vanquishment, through the thrill of love and the void of loneliness—God is with us. God is the one who gives us the courage—the hopeful, faithful heart— to face all of it, and God is the one who makes meaning out of all of it. 

For King Ahaz, who was ruling over the kingdom of Judah in a time of political instability, the name and the promise of Emmanuel was the sign he didn’t ask for. For whatever reason, he refused the prophet Isaiah’s offer of an assurance from God.  But God offered the sign anyway, in the form of a baby about to be born whose name-Emmanuel–literally bore the promise of God’s presence. And for the time being, anyway, the people of Judah were safe. God was with them.

Centuries later, as Matthew recorded the story of Christ’s birth, the moment that God appeared to us in human flesh, he drew on this ancient narrative of a baby carrying God’s eternal promise—God’s eternal “en-couragement,” if you will—and connected the name Emmanuel with the name of Jesus.  So it is a name we sing out to this day, especially at this time of year, with fervent hope and gratitude, offering it as the answer to every question that this troubled word might offer.

O come, O Come, Emmanuel. O, Come, O Come, God, to be with us.

This is the heart of our faith: that even when it seems otherwise, we believe that God is with us. That God will always be with us. The prophecy of Isaiah has been and continues to be fulfilled, especially and ultimately through Christ.

God’s name and God’s promise of presence is written on our hearts, and that name and that promise gives us the strength to do what we must do, those everyday acts of courage. Those small, unglamorous, but vital offerings:

the feeding of a hungry mouth,

the wiping of a tear,

the holding of a trembling hand,

the speaking of truth to power. 

In each of these, we find the presence of God.  In their accumulation, we find the significance of our entire lives. 

So yes, in Advent, we are reminded of the big, beautiful things: of God’s promises to us, and how the coming of Jesus Christ fulfills those promises for all time; how the birth of a child who we call Emmanuel will make the mountains sing and the stars dance in the night sky.

But we are also reminded, in Advent, of the humble things, the earthy things, the tender, powerful things that comprise our lives, that fill our periods of longing and waiting, and we are assured that these things are courageous enough, beautiful enough, just as they are. As the offerings of our hearts to God, as the demonstration of our courage, they tell the same story, they bear the same name: Emmanuel.

Because the God who will be with us as an infant in a bed of straw is also the God who is with us as we wait beside the hospital bed; 

the God who is with us as a thundering voice from on high is also the God who is with us when we cry silent tears into our pillow at night; 

the God who is with us as the sovereign of all creation is also with us as we stand in the lamplight of a familiar doorway, being welcomed home. 

So no matter where you find yourself in this season, and in the seasons to come, take courage. God is with you, and within you, working through you. In your waiting, in your wondering. In your pain and in your joy. In every act of love that you give or receive. 

In each of your names, I hear a whisper of his name, Emmanuel. In each of your faces, I see the face of Christ. What a gift we are given, to find God in one another. To be courageous for one another. To love one another. 

This–simply this–is enough.

This–simply this–is everything there is. 

Both Shepherd and Sheep: A Sermon

There is so much I could say and need to say about the experiences of the past few weeks, but I just don’t have the words at the moment. In the mean time, here is a sermon I offered yesterday, April 23rd, at my placement churches: St. Mary’s Mirfield and St. John’s Upper Hopton. The text is John 10:11-18, wherein Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. 

As many of you know, I have been given the privilege of living and studying in the UK for the past few months as part of an exchange program between my seminary in California and the College of the Resurrection here in Mirfield. Getting to know the people and the landscapes of West Yorkshire has been a joy, but when we were given a break after Easter, I was eager to go a bit further afield.  And so I boarded a train to Scotland, determined to see as much as I could in a week.  And sightsee I did—I saw medieval cityscapes, glorious cathedrals and museums, Highland lochs, the holy island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides….and sheep.  Lots and lots of sheep.

Scottish sheep really have it made, as far as I’m concerned.  They are free to roam across those dramatic Highland landscapes, munching on wild grasses and heather, disturbed only occasionally by the odd passing tourist gawking out of a train window.  And while I was gawking at them, I noticed something interesting, which perhaps you have seen, too: the sheep are all marked.  They have splashes of color painted onto their fleece, some green, some blue, some red. I looked this up later, and I learned that these colors all have a practical purpose—they are called “Smit Marks”, and they are used by the sheep farmers to keep track of which sheep belong to them.  Since the countryside is open, and the sheep can roam wherever they like, these markings are a quick means of identification when it’s time for them to be gathered back in for shearing, etc.

The Scottish sheep, with their vibrant Smit Marks, were lingering in my mind’s eye as I pondered this week’s Gospel passage from John, in which Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd caring for his flock. It’s such an evocative image, isn’t it? One that is deeply ingrained in our idea of relationship with God—through the recitation of the beloved 23rd Psalm, in church art and in hymnody. It is an image of protection and guidance and self-giving love: the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. For us.

And we are marked, too, are we not?  Not with a streak of color on our backs, of course, but we have our own Smit Marks, indicating to whom we belong—they were placed on us in the water of baptism and the oil of anointing.  As it says in my favorite line in the service for Holy Baptism that we use in the Episcopal Church, we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own forever.” No matter where we wander, no matter how far we stray into shadowy valleys or foreboding wilderness, we bear the mark that tells us who we are, and by Whom we are guided—Christ, the Good Shepherd, who stands on the brow of the hill at dusk and calls us home. It can be hard to see and the path is often rocky, but His lantern is lit for us to follow—it burns in the sanctuary of every church where his Eucharistic presence is encountered, and it illuminates every place where we, the people of God, pray and minister in His name.

It’s remarkable what you can discern from looking at a field of sheep!

There’s a catch, of course. If we were to simply bask in the image of Christ as the loving Shepherd and ourselves as his beloved flock, we’d only be getting part of the picture. Because Jesus is more than a model of a capable guardian and overseer; in fact our faith depends on the fact that he is much more than this.  As Saint Augustine asked, “What sayest Thou, O Lord, Thou good Shepherd? For You are the good Shepherd, who art also the good Lamb; at once Pastor and Pasturage, at once Lamb and Lion.” In the mystery of his death and resurrection, which we continue to marvel at this Easter season, we cannot forget that Jesus the Shepherd is also, paradoxically, the paschal lamb who was slain, who was given, if you’ll allow me to stretch the metaphor, his own Smit Mark by the Father to fulfill the plan of human salvation, and who was called home through the valley of the shadow of death in his glorious rising to new life.

This is the One whom we encounter in sacrament and prayer and service. The Shepherd who is the Lamb. The Lamb who is the Shepherd. Whose death was, in the light of the Resurrection, not a demonstration of God’s failure to care, but proof that God will do anything to gather us close into a merciful embrace.

If we follow this train of thought, though, there is one missing piece. Because if Christ is both the Good Shepherd AND the Lamb of God, then we, as people who share in his life, also share in this dual identity. We cannot merely see ourselves as sheep to be protected. As much as I envied those Scottish sheep in their pastoral idyll, I knew I had to continue on my journey, that I could not linger in the field. There was much to see, and much yet to be done. So it is for all of us. If we believe, as St. Paul claims, that it is not we who live but Christ who lives in us, then the Good Shepherd is the One who lives within us. The One Who must guide, and seek out, and yes, even lay down their life at the feet of those whom they serve. He is the one who animates our very beings. In the same moment that we are the beloved flock, you and I are also the brave, good shepherds of God’s mission. We were marked as such on the day of our baptism, when we were knit into Christ’s body, and it is an indelible mark. It cannot be undone. It is our vocation, each and every one of us.

So as we approach the table to take part in the banquet feast of the Lamb who was slain for us, let us remember the deep bond that has drawn us here, the bond of a Good Shepherd calling his flock back to him for rest and renewal. But let us remember, too, that by taking Him into ourselves, we have been transfigured by His abiding presence into shepherds. And so we, too, must seek the flock. We too must measure the worth of our lives by the amount of love we are willing to risk pouring out. We, too, must walk the landscape, lighting the way to guide others into safety.

The world is vast, more vast even than those Highland valleys, and there are many who are seeking home. Let us take up our staffs, light our lanterns, and call out. And may the Good Shepherd within each of us provide the words to pierce the silent gloom, to bring near those who wander towards the light.